Family History Research

The Value of Studying History Today

Going through old notes I came across a lecture I attended in the fall of 1999 at the Chicago Humanities Festival.  The theme that year was “Old and New” and incorporated many lectures about history.  One such lecture was “History’s Value Today,” presented by four historians:  Johnathan Clark, John Milton Cooper, Michael Kammen, and David Kennedy.

Clark explored the idea that history has big underlying themes. It is complex and can be used for scholarship to teach or propaganda to sway public opinion. Cooper argued that people expect to get certain knowledge out of history. Kammen took the stand that history should be studied because it is necessary to see the whole human experience. Doing so allows people to know where they are now and where they came from. Kennedy argued that history helps us see who we are and what makes us different from others.  From a family historian’s perspective, Kammen and Kennedy’s arguments should be understood so we may better write our ancestors stories.

Kammen’s stand that history should be studied to see the whole human experience is crucial to family historians.  We must look at the historical context of our ancestors to have some understanding of their values; the choices they made; the lives they lived; and the beliefs and ideas that were passed down to their children, and in some cases, to their present day descendants.  Without looking at the historical context, we could make assumptions and judgments about the kind of person our ancestor was, that may be incorrect.

An example about making judgments about an ancestor can be taken from my husband’s Italian side. His great uncle, Fortunato Fratto, was born about 1869 in Italy, was educated, and held a job as a customs agent. He immigrated to the United States three separate times in the late 1890’s before settling permanently in Chicago. Here, in Chicago he worked for the city as a Street Cleaner.  In an interview in the 1980’s with his daughter, Rose, at the University of Illinois at Chicago for the Italian Project, Rose describes her father as a very strict, demanding, almost dictator-like father figure. She describes how the children would kneel at his feet at bedtime, kiss his hand and ask for his blessing.  She goes on to describe how his word was law and if you disobeyed or spoke against him, you were sometimes hit. She also describes how he felt degraded working as a Street Cleaner and how he disliked living near undesirables (people he considered lower class).

Without understanding the historical time period, one might compare him to a father in the present day and believe Fortunato was the devil himself.  What kind of father behaves this way? Was he prejudice? Were some of those beliefs passed down to his children? When you examine the time period and his ethnicity, you see that class and standing were very important to Italian men.  In Italy he was considered petty-bourgeoisie due to his education and occupational standing.  In the United States, he was considered to be in the lower class because of his job, earnings, and language skills. As head of the house, the Italian father’s word was law. And in the early 1900’s in Chicago, ethnic groups tended to live together in certain areas of the city. While there was some mixing of ethnicities within an area, typically a street would divide one ethnic group from another, keeping the “undesirables” from being too close. The whole historical picture must be examined in order to form more correct assumptions about the lives of our ancestors. By not looking at the whole picture, how could we understand what life was like for our ancestors and their descendants?

Looking at Fortunato’s life leads into Kennedy’s desire for us to understand that history helps us see who we are and what makes us different from others.  From the standpoint of looking at our immigrant ancestors, it is easier to see “who they were.” We can see what their ethnic beliefs and values were. We can see how they were different from other ethnicities. Once our ancestors became part of the melting pot, and ethnicities, beliefs and values were merged, “who we are” becomes a complex make-up of those beliefs and values.  Going a step beyond looking solely at “who we are” based on ethnicity, I think we need to examine “who we are” based on being American. Who are we in the present day? How are we different from people of other countries? How are we similar and different from our assimilated and American-born ancestors?  All these questions generate new insights into our family histories and provide new research paths.

Studying history today and incorporating it into our family histories, allows us to present a more historically complete narrative and make fewer incorrect judgments.  It allows us to view the people as they were during the time in which they lived, rather than what we wish them to be based on our present day experiences. That is the value of studying history today.

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What are your 2010 Goals?

Summer is winding down, which I think is very sad because I have enjoyed being a pool bum with my three boys, and it is time to re-evaluate our genealogical goals for 2010.

What were your 2010 goals? What have you accomplished and what do you still want to accomplish?

At the beginning of the year I had a couple of goals. Write a draft of a book about my cousin, Robert Brouk, a Flying Tiger. Become a better source-citer, now that I had Elizabeth Shown Mills’s book Evidence Explained. Write my great grand uncle, Michael Kokoska’s story and submit it for publication in a Czech Genealogy Society Journal. And finally, go on a few research trips into the city over the summer.

As summer progressed and I made a huge discovery about my husband’s family, I decided it was time to take the plunge and become certified and start my own genealogy business. And that is just what I have done. Now I have many more goals to finish out the year than what I started with.

1. Finish the draft of Robert’s book.

2. Start the ProGen Study Group September 1. I am waiting for the application to be sent in August for the next session.

3. Set up my business. I would like to take on a couple of clients this fall and increase my client base in 2011.

4. Finish Michael’s story.

5. Begin work on my Board for Certification of Genealogists Portfolio.

Until school starts in late August, I plan to focus on setting up my business. When school starts I plan to schedule myself to work on certain projects on certain days while my twins are in Kindergarten. I think my afternoons will be filled with homework not only for the twins but my 4th grader as well. Life is going to become very busy soon, but that is how I like it.

Will you share your goals?

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Websites to Follow

I found a few great websites to share with you this week in an effort to provide more resources for finding the history of our homes and cities. I hope you find them useful!

Chicago Landmarks Tour 2010 This is a blog by a man who made a goal for 2010 to see all of the Chicago Landmarks. He takes readers on a tour of an area of Chicago and posts beautiful pictures of the area and architecture. I think I will have to visit some of the places he writes about this summer with my children.

City of Chicago Landmark List If you would like to see the entire list of Chicago Landmarks, check out this site. These are the places the above blogger is visiting.  To view a PDF file of this list go here.

Chicago Architecture Foundation And finally if you live in Chicago and want more information about the history of our great city’s buildings, visit the CAF.

Now, unrelated to the home and city history sites above, I was reading Dr. Bill’s blog this morning and he posted a Follow Friday blog post that fits very well with the articles I have been writing the last week.  If you have had problems finding family on Census records, please read Bayside Blog for a great article called Census Searching: Ancestor Not Home? Ask the Neighbors, on finding that elusive ancestor. If you haven’t started following or subscribing to Dr. Bill’s blog, you should! Thanks Dr. Bill for posting this article as a recommendation!

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Your House Has a History

I recently wrote an article about tracing family through street addresses and am now interested in finding the history of some of those houses. While the PDF file mentioned here, Your House Has a History, is specific to Chicago research, some of the tips included can be used in any city.

This booklet is composed of six steps. Step One – Checking the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. Step Two – Finding a copy of the building permit filed when your house was constructed. Step Three – Research information on the construction of your house (and any additions), its architect (if known), and its builder. Step Four – Finding information on the previous owners of your house. Step Five – Finding early or original plans, drawings and photos of your house.  Step Six – Your Neighborhood’s history.  The end of the booklet contains an extensive list of resources to find records.

In our collection of old family photographs, there are probably a few of the homes in which our ancestors lived. Does that home still exist today? One way to find out is to go on Google Earth and enter the address. The program will pinpoint the address and you can zoom in to look at the area. Sometimes a street view is also available. If I enter 2122 W. 18th Place, Chicago, IL, Google Earth will take me to 18th Place and the closest address, which is next door. 2122 does not exist. It was a wooden home, as tall as the ones on either side of it, and is no longer there. Instead, an empty lot filled with grass and trees is where the home stood. The houses on either side of the lot are brick. It will be interesting to find out what happened to the house. Did it burn down? Was it purposely taken down?

What about your current collection of family photographs? Does it include the house where you parents grew up? Where you grew up? Do you have a photograph of the house as it looks today? We can never forget to continue to record our current family history.

For more information specific to Chicago you may visit the Chicago History Museum’s webpage on Architecture.

The Smithsonian has a great booklet online Finding History in your Home.

The Internet Public Library also has an extensive listing of resources on their Guide to Researching the History of your House page. 

Have you traced the history of any homes? What interesting things did you discover?